88 Keys and Constellations

We have pictures of my older sister, Heather, at eight years old, sitting at the piano, fingers curled tall on the piano keys, a big grin revealing her new teeth. It was a piano recital, and piano was Heather’s thing. In the afternoons, the house was often filled with her notes—the stops and stutters of fingers finding the way.

And then there was me. I had been writing since I was seven, filling Lisa Frank notebooks and stacks of lined paper with my burgeoning art. But when it came to the piano, 88 keys glared back at me—nothing but an ivory barrier between me and the stories I would have rather been writing. I hated to practice and rarely did. Piano to me was notes rather than music.

Of my various instructors through the years, Mrs. Kelly is one teacher I remember the most. When it came time for my lesson, I trudged up the hill to her house, books in hand. Heather had already been there for a while, cleaning the house to pay for her lessons. I didn’t care about who was paying for mine.

“Did you just roll your eyes at me?”

One day, after I mutilated my assigned song, Mrs. Kelly seemed determined to motivate my inner maestro. “You have to feel the rhythm! One and two and three and one and two and—here, see.” She stood from her seat beside the piano and began waltzing in the center of the room. I stared at the spectacle in typical preteen disgust. When at last she ended the embarrassing performance, we commenced the doomed lesson. Seeing my sloppy fingers smashed down against the keys, she attempted to remain upbeat: “Remember, octopus fingers, not jellyfish fingers—”

But my patience had found an end.

“Did you just roll your eyes at me?” Her patience, too, had found an end.

I had no defense, for I had indeed just rolled my eyes, knowing full better than to disrespect an adult in that way—even one as crazy as I thought Mrs. Kelly was.

Early in my teens, though I don’t remember the circumstances, we stopped taking piano lessons from Mrs. Kelly. Perhaps after the eye-rolling incident, Mrs. Kelly had a secret council with my parents, refusing to put up with my shenanigans any longer. Though they could have given up, left me to my failing ways, and saved their money for an entertainment center or a vacation, my parents found yet another piano teacher, my first male teacher, Nathan.

Nathan’s studio was set up in his parent’s basement—which sounds like the beginning of a horror story with a tragic ending. But the basement smelled of berry air freshener, lace curtains hung at the door, and Highlights magazines were stacked in the foyer. There I waited for the kid before me to finish his lesson as I clutched my books, hoping that somehow the notes would find themselves into my fingers by osmosis. Finally Nathan would open the door to usher out the student and call me in.

Nathan was a masters student, and although he seemed ancient to me then, he was probably younger than I am now. He wore glasses and sweaters and a smile that settled even the most hesitant of students.

For what seemed like the first 15 minutes of my 30-minute lesson, we talked about books, the news, and any other topic that struck our fancy. Sometimes he ran into the next room and return with a CD or book to show me. And we talked about my writing. It occurs to me now that perhaps he was just prolonging the inevitable of hearing me crash through my under-practiced songs like a  missionary thrashing through neck-high jungle brush with a machete, not quite sure where she was heading.

Perhaps he was prolonging the inevitable of hearing me crash through my under-practiced songs.

When we got around to opening the books for me to desecrate the art he had made his life’s work to teach, he pointed out the small improvements I had made and ways that I might further improve. Then he sent me on my way with encouragement and a piece of candy I hadn’t earned.

You should know that the issue wasn’t simply my disinclination to practice; I also knew that practicing ultimately led to performing, and performing in front of people made me sick. My nerves wrecked performances at piano guilds, festivals, competitions, and recitals. For offertory one Wednesday evening at church, I played the old hymn “Have Thine Own Way.” Ironically, my hands were having their own way, shaking so hard that I couldn’t keep them in place on the keyboard. I plunked my way through the song but somehow managed to finish a soulful final chord.

I remember slinking down to my pew, then out to the car after the service. Once at home Dad comforted me: “It’s not the way you start but the way you finish that counts.” Though the incident was a good life lesson, it wasn’t the perfect, final chord that rang in my ears but every wrong note I’d committed before it. Like a driver scared to get back behind the wheel after a wreck, I avoided the piano bench and those 88 menacing keys. All I really wanted to do was write in the solitude of my bedroom.

But something shifted during my years of lessons with Nathan. I continued to hate practicing, and still couldn’t command my nerves during performance, but with his laid-back approach to teaching, Nathan distracted me from the austerity of the keys. I grew comfortable enough to strike out on my own without sheet music and explore the keyboard with its combinations of notes and chords and rhythms. Instead of avoiding the piano, I was drawn to it for what I could discover—the music. Like a layer atop my writing, I’d found another way to express emotion and convey meaning.

It was redemption in my favorite key of B flat.

In my later teen years, Dad pastored a small church in South Carolina. Sometimes when we stayed late, after all the lights were turned off, I sat at the piano and picked out songs by ear, learning to roll chords to fill in between the beats. Soon I was composing my own simple hymn arrangements.
Something sacred went on in those evenings, something connected to that calamitous offertory and every other failed lesson and recital—redemption in my favorite key of B flat.
Even now, on Sunday mornings, I sit and look at the electric keyboard, my fingers curving in my lap, tapping out the notes along with our pianist, longing to find their place on the keys.

Behind the door on Nathan’s studio wall was a framed picture of him as a child, sitting at a keyboard with a proud smile on his face. Seated demurely beside him was his teacher, a younger version of Mrs. Kelly—the same Mrs. Kelly who had willingly made herself a dancing fool before a cynical teenager, desperate to convey her passion for music. During each of my lessons with Nathan, she watched me over my shoulder, and I wondered if she had ever danced in one of Nathan’s lessons, years ago.


A few weeks back, I was editing an article about bird speciation, written by an author in South Carolina where I’m from. When I emailed to ask what church the author went to, I recognized his response and asked if he knew Nathan, who attended the same church. His response didn’t surprise me: “He’s my children’s piano teacher.”

These experiences mark a pin-pricked map——my life in constellation.

We like to think of our life as a planet, a hunk of material in rotation around the cosmos, far too often at apogee from others. But life is really more like little points of light, stars joining to form the 88 constellations in the heavens, each experience or event connecting in some way to the next.*** sagittarius_28066977314

Mrs. Kelly taught Nathan to love the piano. Nathan taught me to appreciate music, and inadvertently, encouraged me in my writing. And here I sit, editing articles for an author whose children are learning piano from Nathan. Like a night sky stippled with galaxies, these and so many other experiences and events mark a pin-pricked map—my life in constellation.

I’m thankful for a passionate teacher who danced and for a teacher whose unconventional lessons still make me long for those 88 keys.



*There really are benefits to taking instrument lessons. Check out these articles: “Sorry, Kids, Piano Lessons Make You Smarter”  and “Science Just Discovered Something Amazing About What Childhood Piano Lessons Did to You.” However, in addition to piano lessons, I suggest that parents help children pursue their interests rather than forcing them to pursue an art or skill that they don’t enjoy or identify with.
**I think any teacher can understand Mrs. Kelly’s methods. There are no lengths to which a good teacher would not go to help a student learn and love learning. I get it now, Mrs. Kelly. And I’m sorry for rolling my eyes.
 ***Not once when I began writing about my piano trials did I expect to end up with a astronomy metaphor. Furthermore, I certainly never anticipated a corresponding detail so marvelous as 88 piano keys and 88 constellations. Nonfiction: I never saw it coming—and I sure couldn’t make it up.



5 Replies to “88 Keys and Constellations”

  1. Loved this post, Sarah. You are one of my favorite wordsmiths! I have a greater passion for nonfiction after taking Creative Nonfiction with you. In fact, you opened up a new world to me. I guess I didn’t really know such a genre existed . . . I was still stuck in the fiction world. 🙂 Although I love fiction, too, I thank you for helping me find a genre that leans more to my strengths (at least I hope so!). Keep posting, my friend!


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